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Vacationing during the pandemic? Try Dauphin Island, Alabama

The sun sets over a Dauphin Island dock on the Mississippi Sound.

By Jim Bloch

Most of the houses stand on stilts, which give them a sense of removal not only from each other but from the earth itself.

Tourist infrastructure is minimal even though the beaches offer finer, whiter sand than anywhere on the Great Lakes. Very few motels. A RV park. The best restaurant, Miguel’s Beach and Baja, is takeout only — the burritos, tacos and quesadillas are all available with shrimp or mahi mahi. The gift shops and tourist traps are few and far between — try Blue Revival Surf Shop or the Hippie Fish Boutique for something six feet away from ordinary.

In other words, the amenities that normally might attract crowds of tourists — infinity pools, tiki bars, discount trinket huts, famous beaches lined with towering hotels — are in short supply.

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Which is exactly what the Centers for Disease Control recommends for safe domestic travel during the pandemic.

Think Dauphin Island, a barrier island at the mouth of Mobile Bay in Alabama.

A heron relaxes in the bay next to the municipal beach.

With a good night sleep and two or three drivers, you can drive there in about 16 hours from Port Huron. That means, among other things, not fighting potential crowds at the airport, not being suspended in a sealed tube with 100+ other breathing people for the two hour flight to Mobile, not collecting your luggage and renting a car, not staying in a motel, all of which increase your likelihood of contracting the respiratory coronavirus.

If the weather is nice, you can spend every day on the beach. The average high temperature in May is 81 degrees Fahrenheit and the average low is 71. The island sees rain on five of May’s 31 days. The Gulf of Mexico, which laps against the island’s south beaches averages in the low to mid 70s. The Mississippi Sound and Mobile Bay frame the island’s north side. The three mile long Gordon Persons Bridge connects the island to the mainland.

The CDC’s first recommendation is that domestic travelers should be fully vaccinated — while continuing to mask up, keeping physical distances of six feet between people not in your travel pod and frequent handwashing.

If you’re not vaccinated, get a COVID-19 test one to three days before you travel. Wear your mask. Avoid crowds. Wash and sanitize your hands often. When you return home, get a test within three to five days and quarantine for seven.

Our travel party rented a house that easily slept six for $3,000, Saturday to Saturday. We had takeout burritos from Miguel’s twice for lunch and take-out pizza once for dinner from the slightly rundown Jetson-like restaurant called Pirates at the golf course. We cooked the rest of our meals in the well-provisioned kitchen and shopped at Ship & Shore Supplies, which carried everything from groceries and alcohol to beach supplies, fishing tackle and bait. One afternoon we had a mediocre lunch at well-spaced tables on the deck of Islanders across from the city beach, which charges a $2 entry fee April-September.

Sea level rise has meant that some of Dauphin Island’s stilt houses are in now in the Gulf of Mexico.

Most of the island’s 1,200+ residents and its handful of businesses are clustered on the bulging east end of the island under the shade of pine and saw palmetto trees. The western 8-10 miles of the island consists of a narrow sand spit, most of which is barren of trees and is served by a single tenuous two-lane road. Snow plows and bulldozers are stationed periodically along the artery — to plow sand. The western four or five miles of the island is uninhabited and roadless.

Surf fishing is popular and anglers snagged big catfish and pompano as we strolled the beach. Some of the stilted houses stood in the gulf. A dozen offshore oil platforms give the horizon a slightly ominous appearance.

Birding is popular activity. The island sits neatly at the intersection of the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways and is the first spit of land to greet returning migratory birds after a winter of fun and sun of Central and South America. Bird sanctuaries dot the east end of the island. The largest is the Audubon Bird Sanctuary at 165 acres, studded with live oaks, magnolias, pines and wetlands, where we saw plenty of turtles and an alligator. Pelicans dove out of the sky and crashed into the water, hunting fish along the shore. Herons stood around on their peg legs. An eagle perched on a dead tree trunk, looking over the bay, east of the pier, which no longer reaches the gulf.

Shell Mound Park is all that remains of the native American tribes that seasonally inhabited the island for thousands of years.

Fort Gaines, built beginning in 1821, is open for touring and is near the spot where Admiral Farragut is said to have ordered: “Damn the torpedoes — full speed ahead.” The fort historically has guarded the western edge of the mouth of Mobile Bay.

Nearby, the Estuarium has a vivid collection of local marine life.

We met plenty of Michiganders combing the beach for shells. One of them asked if we had seen the New York Times. The corridor from Port Huron to Monroe, she told us, was blazing red, the hottest COVID-19 spot in the nation.

We were happy to be a thousand miles from home.

Jim Bloch is a freelance writer based in St. Clair, Michigan. Contact him at bloch.jim@gmail.com.

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